The number of AIDS patients in China is reaching "frightening" levels, a renowned expert on the disease said Friday, a day after Beijing said it would provide free treatment to thousands of sufferers in dire financial straits.
"There are about a million individuals in China who are already infected," said Dr. David Ho, executive director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. "There are some concerns about what the epidemic will look like 10 years from now and the numbers might be frightening to some."
Ho was in Beijing to promote an AIDS summit Monday that will include a speech by former President Clinton and wide-ranging discussions — including topics that are traditionally taboo in China, such as care programs among gays and media coverage of AIDS.
It will also feature the personal account of a doctor from central China's Henan province, where an unsanitary blood-selling industry sped AIDS transmission.
The problem of HIV and AIDS "is obviously a health crisis," Ho said. "When it's a problem of that magnitude it has to be a great concern to the leadership and, I think, to the general public."
China has been slow to disclose the extent of the disease and detained two activists who distributed a government report linking AIDS to blood-selling in Henan.
But Beijing has more recently shown greater willingness to confront AIDS. Executive Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang said Thursday that 5,000 HIV and AIDS patients with "financial difficulties" will receive free treatment through next year.
According to the government's Xinhua News Agency, Gao said China's central and local governments have committed $820 million to set up anti-AIDS units, plus more than $24 million a year for prevention and treatment, Xinhua reported.
Gao added that China's fight against AIDS still falls short. "China is still faced with arduous tasks," he was quoted as saying.
New HIV infections in China have been growing annually by about 30 percent. Chinese officials and the United Nations warn that 10 million people could be infected by 2020 without more effective prevention.
HIV in China is mostly confined to intravenous drug users and people infected by the unsanitary blood buying.
Ho was one of the researchers who pioneered using a "cocktail" of drugs to treat AIDS, which changed the disease from a quick death sentence to a sometimes manageable chronic illness. He was named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1996 for his work.